Political group FAST has long advocated for programs to decrease imprisonment of drug addicts and focus attention on drug treatment. After their first failure with Drug Courts (see below), you think FAST would have learned. However, news now comes of actual increase in arrests and imprisonment among addicted people directly as a result of “Smart Choices” program they continue to demand to be funded. Those prisoners who completed the “Smart Choices” program had a higher rate of recidivism than those who dropped out. The Sheriff and his Representative Ramona Schaeffer told FAST that the program was not working as planned, so why did FAST continue to push for the program? They did so because they have blind dedication to their own agenda and do not allow any dissent within the organization to allow them to be better informed and make better decisions. Their own model is causing them to fail and their refusal to consider better ways will be their undoing. (continued below…)
“Smart Choices” recidivism program was pushed by FAST to reduce re-arrest and reimprisonment among drug offenders and others. However the program actually led to HIGHER re-arrest rates among those who finished the program than those who dropped out. FAST still pushes for this program and refuses to ask its members to directly help prisoners re-integrate into the community.
SMART Choices was a program that had laudable intentions: keep people with drug problems out of prison and get them set to succeed when they reenter the community. (But, as commonly occurs, good intentions are not enough when it comes to good actions. Moral action also requires good circumstances and a good object and must not cause unintended harm along the way.) Smart Choices was a “modified Therapeutic Community” designed to teach life skills and help prisoners learn coping strategies that would help them avoid crime upon release. Sun Beam Times interviewed Ramona Schafer of the Pinellas county Sherriff’s office, (Program Services Supervisor) for this story and thanks her for sharing the statistics on the program. There were some graduates that actually did well after the program and avoided being rearrested. These are likely the anecdotal cases highlighted by FAST as it pushed the program (see below). However, those are the people who had good community networks when they left. There were also people outside the SMART Choices program that did just as well. In fact, they did better.
The Sheriff’s office revealed that from 2009 to 2010, 483 people were enrolled in Smart Choices with 80% completing the program. Of the 386 that completed the program, 52.8% were rearrested (204) in the first year with 153 rearrested in the second (39.62%). Of the 97 who dropped out of Smart Choices, 46 were rearrested the first year (47.2%) and 35 the second year (36.08%). Thus those who dropped out had a lower rate of re-arrest at one year (47%) than those who graduated Smart Choices (53%). At two years, the rate of re-arrest was also lower for dropouts (36%) than graduates of Smart Choices (40%). In addition, there was no improvement in the percentage of people arrested twice or still in prison in two years between the two groups (both at about 22%). Ms. Schafer attributes at least part of the higher re-arrest rate to the fact that Smart Choices graduates agreed to be drug tested and to be automatically re-arrested for a positive test. Thus the program defeated one of the prime purposes of FAST: to keep drug offenders out of jail and keep them in the community. Further analysis is needed to determine if other causes of re-arrest were more common in Smart Choices graduates.
The Smart Choices program was shut down by Sheriff Jim Coates in 2010 when funding was no longer available and after early indications were that it was not successful. But that did not stop FAST and its more than 3,000 Members from demanding that the program start again at its “Nehemiah Action Assembly”. In fact, FAST leaders misinformed their members at the assembly, telling them that the rate of recidivism before the program was 70% (see flier excerpt below)! According to Ramona Schaffer, the rate has never been that high and she does not understand where the number came from. In fact, data from the “Pinellas County Re-entry program” strategic plan for 2010, reveals that the recidivism rate from 2001-2007 was between 33 and 41%. Another ten year study reveals an all time high of 63% in 1998 which had fallen to about 25% (at two years) in 2008. So it is unclear where FAST is getting their data and why they would seek to bear false witness to its members and the public that the program they were advocating had dropped the rate from 70 to 40%. This is especially concerning as it now appears that the recidivism rate actually went up to 53% as a direct result of participating in the program compared to dropping out of the program!
FAST used this flier to encourage its members to demand the Smart Choices Program be re-funded by the Sheriff after the Sheriff made it clear to them the program was a failure. The flier falsely claims that recidivism dropped from 70 to 40% with the program. The 9th commandment directs men to “not bear false witness”.
This failure is similar to the Drug Courts program FAST pushed as a solution. Drug Courts also failed and actually caused increased imprisonment of people on minor drug offenses that were previously avoidable and enrollment was about 350, not 4000 as planned. Participation in the program also meant that offenders had to give up their rights to due process if they were accused of later transgressions. The failures of the programs is why the Drug Policy Alliance and the Justice Policy Institute work against the Drug Courts. These programs also failed after FAST invested huge amounts of effort in advocacy for the program, backing a bill by Democratic Representative Daryl Rouson to expand the program. They proudly took credit for making many phone calls and sending emails and letters to Tallahassee to pass the bill. All while attempting to claim they were not a “political organization”.
FAST has a long history of refusing to allow any dissent. When this reporter sought to serve on their “Jobs Committee”, he was denied access to attend a meeting after initially being invited. FAST needs committees, members and leaders that are more interested in real solutions than demagoguery. If they were to allow people with different ideas and an objective approach to the facts, they would likely be more successful.
FAST also has a long history of refusing to do anything short of pursuing strong arm political tactics to push its failed political agenda. Ramona Schaefer reports that she asked FAST members to volunteer to help reintegrate prisoners into the community. The FAST Committee incredulously refused to ask their members to do any sort of volunteer work. Their response was “that’s the government’s job”. It seems they are forgetting God’s true call for Social Justice which is to serve the common good through Charity and not through legislation. This is the danger with a group like FAST: they give the false sense to their members they are doing something good, while actually producing bad outcomes that cause injustice. Their leaders hide behind the church and violate true moral action based in charity, good circumstances and a good objective, while claiming they are nothing but the pious working for good. This is another FAST episode that does a disservice to the good people of the Church and society as a whole who are being duped into believing their actions promote justice when they are actually missing golden opportunities to use their numbers to do some real good.
Note: FAST has been contacted at the South County Office (727-823-9197)to comment on this story. If they choose to respond, their response will be published as submitted.